There’s a moment in director Ira Deutchman’s documentary “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” in which the various talking heads mourn for the loss of Don Rugoff’s various New York theaters. All praise the power these locations had in their lives and how the loss of these institutions and spaces creates deep pain for them. Deutchman’s feature was made in 2019, but the impact hits even harder now, considering the state of our own movie theater industry post-pandemic.
Really, “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” isn’t just the story of a movie theater. It’s a tale about the foundation of the arthouse scene in America in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the complicated impresario/raconteur, Don Rugoff, who made it all possible. Outside of showing who Rugoff was, Deutchman becomes a subject himself in the documentary.
As a former employee of Rugoff’s Cinema 5 production company, Deutchman also seeks to figure out what happened to the disgraced producer after he lost his company. The journey takes Deutchman to the small town of Edgartown in Massachusetts in the hopes of finding Rugoff’s final resting place, as well as the makeshift film society he set out to develop there.
The final film is equal parts documentary, investigation, and film history feature, and all three are compelling in different ways. Deutchman’s journey to Edgartown feels like the weakest element of the movie, if only because it’s so minor in the film’s already fleeting 93-minute running time. The impetus comes from a competitor of Rugoff’s, who makes a speech during the Gotham Awards in which he mentioned that Rugoff attempted to start a film group before “being buried in a pauper’s grave.”
We see Deutchman travel to Edgartown and interview various people. Because of the town’s small nature, various people interviewed are seen calling ups grandmothers and other relatives in the hopes of tracking down information. By the time the director gets what he wants, it doesn’t feel like a deep moment of catharsis, but a way to close the book on that particular segment.
The more fascinating story is found within Rugoff himself and how he allowed arthouse cinema to flourish during the counterculture era. Rugoff came from theater stock, with his father being a prestigious theater owner and designer. So when Don Rugoff started purchasing theaters in New York City, including the Beekman, it was a big deal. His golden goose was the Cinema 1 and 2, the first purpose-driven theater aimed at having more mainstream films in one theater and a smaller segment for estoeric films. With that, the Cinema 1 and 2 became the go-to theater for cineastes like Woody Allen, and foreign filmmakers like François Truffaut.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff”
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When Rugoff got into purchasing and distributing features, though, is when things exploded. The doc examines the impact of several of Rugoff’s acquisitions, including 1975’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties,” and the Rolling Stones doc “Gimme Shelter.” In the case of Wertmuller, the director herself says that without Rugoff purchasing and exhibiting her features, she’d probably never have broken out on American shores.
Deutchman’s documentary feels like a fun throwback feature, not just to a time when we could all safely watch a movie in a theater, but when being a singular personality like Rugoff could accomplish anything. Rugoff is certainly a complicated figure, and while the goal of Deutchman’s documentary is to elucidate and illustrate how Rugoff’s mentality created the likes of Miramax and A24, it also shows how unchecked male ego can be celebrated.
Make no mistake, for every flaw Rugoff had, he had just as many positive attributes, and for every talking head who expounds on being berated by the man, there were just as many who discuss how much he cared about them. Hearing Deutchman and the other talking heads reminisce is mostly charming, even if one of them refers to Rugoff as a Harvey Weinstein-esque figure at times. One former employee emphasizes that women were often easier for Rugoff to exploit and that’s why he hired them; “he was an equal opportunity exploiter!” And yet when one of those female employees went to a meeting with someone in their hotel room, Rugoff was the first person to check in on them.
As the 1960s transforms into the 1970s, the documentary casts an eye on why someone like Rugoff could thrive. The films he purchased weren’t just off-kilter or foreign, they had something new and provocative to say in a time when mainstream Hollywood was playing it safe. The biggest irony is that the techniques Rugoff employed, particularly by the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, were being utilized by the mainstream studios. Even Rugoff enlisting an artist to create 3D window displays can be seen in the costume cases on display at the now defunct Arclight or the Landmark in Los Angeles.
“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” often feels like inside baseball for film buffs, but if you’re of that group you’ll be charmed by it. The loss of theaters feels particularly acute at the moment and that too should also make this loving documentary feel even more poignant.
A Deutchman Co. release, “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” is in select theaters and in virtual cinemas today.
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